"We can't talk for five minutes without yeling at each other," says forty-year-old Valerie, the former director of a community outreach program. "Half the time I can't remember what we're arguing about; one fight blends into another.
"Mike and I decided that I'd stop working after our first child was born. I thought I'd enjoy the time with the kids—Jenna is four, and our second daughter, Caitlin, was born nine months ago. I adore them, but I wasn't prepared for how completely my life would change. I'm afraid I made the wrong decision.
"I was totally dedicated to my job. Then, when I had Jenna, suddenly I was isolated. I was nursing around the clock, doing laundry, cooking and barely getting out of my bathrobe by the afternoon. I was exhausted and weepy, and my husband was completely unsympathetic. Basically, he thought I was crazy, and didn't hesitate to tell me. I was better prepared with Caitlin, but he still has no clue what it's like to be home all day.
"Last month, when I started to tell Mike how I feel the world is passing me by, he immediately countered with, 'You think you have it hard? Try running a business in this cutthroat real-estate market.' I know he works hard. I simply want him to listen to me, to acknowledge how difficult this is
"The stupidest stuff is ammunition for a battle royal. If we're in the car and I ask him to slow down, he snaps that if I'm not happy, I can drive. We're not strapped financially, but that doesn't stop Mike from nickel-and-diming me about everything. When I wanted to buy a new coffeepot, I get a lecture that the old one is fine. He even has a fit if I buy Jenna a blueberry muffin on the way to preschool.
"Mike also thinks I spend too much time on the phone with my friends after the kids are asleep. But that's the only way I can stay in touch with people who mean a great deal to me — people who offer me emotional support.
"We've been married for five years. In the beginning we were always on the same wavelength. We met on a blind date and talked for hours. I was struck by the way he approached the world so rationally. Little did I know that would come back to haunt me. He'd send me roses at work for no reason at all. Now, talking is like picking our way through a minefield. Mike is quick to take offense and insists that I'm criticizing him when I'm not.
"It took me a long time to find the right man. My parents' marriage was a disaster, and I had no intention of falling into the same trap. My father, a lawyer, was a cocaine addict, an alcoholic and a philanderer — your basic catastrophe of the '70s. Chaos was just around the corner: I never knew when my parents would start screaming and throwing things. Then Dad would leave town for weeks at a time with one of his girlfriends. My mother, a housewife, was constantly on the phone, pouring her heart out to her friends. I was fifteen when they divorced, and my father died of a drug overdose when I was in my twenties. Mom remairred and moved to Oregon.
"Mike and I became serious pretty quickly. We weren't kids—Mike had been married before for five years. When he wanted to settle down right away, I thought that was great— I was tired of commitment-phobic guys.
"We were married a year later in a small outdoor ceremony. I threw away my birth control pills, but we never imagined I'd get pregnant immediately. I had an awful time—.my hormones were way out of whack, and I sobbed uncontrollably for months. Mike didn't know what to do with me.
"The night Jenna was born is symbolic of all our problems. My water broke at 2 a.m. — a month early. It took forever for the doctor to get back to me, and my husband refused to get out of bed. He told me in this very condescending voice to calm down, then rolled over and went back to sleep. Of course, Mike has a rational explanation for his selfishness. He says he knew we'd have a long day ahead, so he figured he was helping both of us by getting a good night's rest. He has a way of intellectualizing everything— and making me feel small in the process.
"And then there's Mike's mother, the most overbearing woman on the planet. I have tremendous respect and sympathy for what she's gone through— Marion survived the Holocaust, then lost her husband and had to raise two children alone. But that doesn't give her license to take over our lives. When I was nursing, she insisted that the baby needed water. Even though I told her no a hundred times, the second my back was turned, she'd pop the water bottle right in Jenna's mouth. My husband can't understand why I don't want to spend every Sunday with her.
"Mike also complains about our social life and our sex life. I don't like to leave my children with just anyone, and, frankly, a good night's sleep sometimes sounds a lot more exciting than dinner or a movie. As far as sex goes, when I'm nursing, it's always felt funny to have Mike touch my breasts.
"I'm tired of fighting, tired of trying to make this marriage work. I'm lonely. If it weren't for our kids, Mike and I wouldn't have anything in common."
"Why does Valerie always think she's the only one working on this relationship?" asks Mike, forty-one, who co-owns a small real-estate-development company. "She's not exactly easy to live with. Anything and everything can make my wife come unglued.
"I don't think she has any idea what she sounds like. I don't appreciate her negativity and her sarcasm. In her book, I'm not contributing enough, and when I do contribute, I get it wrong. If I go grocery shopping, I brace for the inquisition afterward. 'Why did you buy this brand of macaroni and cheese?' 'Jenna doesn't like that kind of peanut butter.' Also, it would be nice if she saw things from my point of view. I have a thing about waste, for instance. If the coffeepot works, why buy a new one? And I think it's ridiculous to spend a fortune on a muffin that Jenna takes two bites of.
"Valerie is never content to stick to the problem at hand; before I realize it, I'm defending myself for something I did a year ago. She's an obsessive worrier. When she spouts her anxieties and complaints, I have to get out of there fast. She's my mother all over again.
"My parents were both in a concentration camp in Germany, and emigrated right after the war. My dad died of cancer when I was only ten, so I don't have a lot of memories of him. For my mother, daily life was always a huge burden. I know she'd been through hell, but she was always crying when I was a kid. I know she loved me and my sister, but she was never there for us. I was dying to join Little League, but she had no way to get me to practice. She could have called a friend or the coach, but she never made the effort.
"If I got mad or misbehaved, Mom would take it personally. 'Why are you doing this to me?' she'd sob. When I got older, I became the man of the house— I'd pay the bills, do the chores, and try to mediate between my older sister and my mother. Believe me, I know how difficult my mother can be, but I feel a huge obligation to include her in our lives. Valerie's being selfish about our Sunday afternoons.
"I met my first wife in college. I was crushed when she walked out, but it left me determined to make my next relationship work. I fell in love with Valerie the minute I saw her. She's gorgeous, she laughed at my jokes, and we could talk for hours without getting bored. Even now, though we fight all the time, I still believe we're meant for each other.
"She's right when she links our problems to her first pregnancy. Valerie was a maniac, and I just tried to hold on until the baby was born. I still don't think I acted inappropriately when her water broke with Jenna. There was nothing I could do for her until the contractions started; at least one of us needed to get a decent night's sleep.
"Valerie's anxieties get worse and worse. I try to be helpful, but she goes on like a broken record. She tells me I'm not there for her; I feel the same way about her. She's got plenty of time to talk to her friends all night, but no time for me, no time for sex, no time even to go out for dinner. Valerie has to stop blaming me for everything, or I'm out of this marriage."
The Counselor's Turn
"I could hear Karen and Mike bickering in my waiting room," said the counselor. "Theirs is a classic example of how unresolved arguments can fuel a bitterness that festers and destroys intimacy. Valerie's and Mike's constant anger pushed aside any positive feelings they had for each other and erased their joy in their children and in their relationship.
"Ironically, Valerie and Mike had similar complaints. Articulate and outspoken, they both felt ignored and unloved. They desperately needed to learn how to listen, and how to express anger without blame and how to really be a couple. To protect herself from the destructive environment in which she had grown up, Valerie developed a tough outer shell. She demanded constant support from Mike, and when she felt she wasn't getting it, she became anxious and even more demanding. Like her mother, Valerie used the phone as a lifeline to her friends. She was totally unaware of the impression she had on her husband. She didn't hear the sarcasm or criticism in her voice and failed to understand that she was making no room in her life for her husband.
"When Valerie brooded or became panicky, Mike would try to pressure her into his solution. When she resisted, he retreated. This was how he had reacted to his mother's helplessness and hysteria. Mike needed to develop empathy for Valerie and to accept the fact that her approach differed from his. Until he did this, their problem-solving would be stalled by power struggles.
"After they spent several sessions blaming each other, I tried to break the stalemate: 'You have a choice,' I said. 'You can continue to squabble, or you can try to see things from the other's point of view. Until you both emotionally commit to this marriage, I can't help you.'
"'When we left last week,' Mike said at our next session, 'Valerie and I walked home holding hands. I can't tell you how long it's been since we did something simple and tender like that.'
"The next few months proved fruitful. Valerie worked on learning to calm herself before she speaks. I asked her to think about specific physical sensations she feels when she gets anxious. She noticed a tightening in the back of her neck, and has learned to take deep breaths or leave the room for a few minutes to compose herself. I told Mike to point out — nicely — as soon as she starts speaking in her hammering, blaming voice.
"I taught both of them a listening technique: sitting quietly while one party expresses feelings, then reflecting those feelings back without judgment. Like many women, Valerie needed her husband to pay attention but not necessarily offer a solution. He became more responsive when she asked him to just listen for a few minutes. Since she can now talk to her husband, Valerie no longer needs so much time on the telephone.
"As the bickering ceased, it became easier for Mike and Valerie to compromise. Mike agreed to pay more attention when his mother tries to steamroll her ideas over Valerie—though now that Valerie feels more attended to, her mother-in-law's visits are less of an issue. In addition, Valerie realized that she really missed her career. After discussing it with Mike, she has made plans to resume work after Caitlin's second birthday.
"Valerie's fear that she and Mike had little in common has also eased since she found a college student to baby-sit. Last month, on the spur of the moment, Valerie called Mike at work and said, 'I just read that airfares to Paris are the lowest in years. Go buy two tickets for a five-day trip—before I chicken out.'
"'Paris proved we still enjoy each other's company,' Valerie reported. 'If we work hard to make sure both of us get our needs met, we have faith that we won't lose ourselves in the process.'"
"Can This Marriage Be Saved?" is the most enduring women's magazine feature in the world. This month's case is based on interviews with clients and information from the files of Jane Greer, Ph.D., a marriage and sex therapist in New York City. The story told here it true, although names and other details have been changed to conceal identities.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, November 1998.